A WEIRD book

by Jeroen Bouterse

Here’s an interesting game. You receive 20 dollars, and you and three others can anonymously contribute any portion of this amount to a public pool. The amount of money in this pool is then multiplied by 1.5 and divided equally among all players. Repeat 10 times, then go home with your money. What will happen? How much would you contribute in round one, if you knew nothing about your fellow players?

This ‘Public Goods Game’ is one example of the many sophisticated social-psychological experiments that Joseph Henrich brings into play in his recent book The WEIRDest people in the world. It is also a good example of how he puts those experiments to use. One lesson from this game is that people are more cooperative than models of economically rational behavior would suggest (are more homo reciprocans than homo economicus (211)). Another is that average first-round contributions vary significantly between populations. ‘WEIRD’ stands for ‘Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic’, and also serves to emphasize that WEIRD populations are weird in the sense of unusual: they are psychological outliers in a lot of ways.

To stay with the Public Goods Game: Henrich shows that the average share of their endowment that participants from a given country put into the pool in round one correlates negatively with how strongly kinship ties are in that country, as measured either by the so-called ‘Kinship Identity Index’ or by the prevalence of cousin marriage. This is not a surprise to Henrich, who sees the same pattern repeated in other negative correlations: between the strength of kinship ties and the number of blood donations for instance (221), and in general between the strength of kinship and “impersonal prosociality”: a cooperative attitude towards anonymous strangers.

Relations like this, that can be measured in the present, form the springboard into the main theses of Henrich’s book, which are essentially historical: that people’s attitudes and psychological propensities, shaped deeply by cultural practices, over time influence the viability of different kinds of institutions. In particular, navigating individualistic societies with weak kinship ties takes different skills than navigating societies with strong kinship ties. The kind of individual psychology fostered by the weakening of kinship ties increases the fitness of voluntary associations, which in turn encourage individualism and related psychological traits.

This can lead to a virtuous cycle where individuals and social institutions become ever more adapted to a society where identities, attitudes and decisions do not center around personal (and especially familial) relations, but around individual preferences and attitudes, and around social institutions based on voluntary participation and individual decision-making. Finally, Henrich’s thesis is that to see this engine accelerate to escape velocity, we need to look at Western Europe. Western Europe developed religions and institutions that required and further fostered individual responsibility and voluntary association, such as monasteries, guilds, universities, cities and scientific societies – occasionally, Henrich even regards early modern states as voluntary associations (459). The prime mover of this process was the weakening of kinship ties in the Middle Ages, forced upon Christian populations by the ‘Marriage and Family Program’ of the medieval Church. This, Henrich claims, provides the best explanation for the European scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the global inequality that resulted from Europe’s “peculiar pathway” (476).

The direction of causality is a major part of Henrich’s thesis. We might complacently infer that whatever psychological differences between countries or groups of countries can experimentally be demonstrated to exist are the consequence of differences in the present or recent state of those countries, which are in turn the result of their different histories. However, Henrich has a stronger claim to defend: he singles out the psychological differences that these experiments track as the cause of historical divergence. Notwithstanding the causal complexity of history that Henrich repeatedly acknowledges, there can be no misunderstanding about the thrust of his argument (which he sometimes even represents schematically (230)): the Church’s marriage policies led to weakened kinship ties, which made Western Christian populations psychologically (proto-)‘WEIRD’. This started a self-strengthening cycle of institutional and psychological change that catapulted the West to prosperity and global dominance.

Lab-based results

Demonstrating all the links here is, obviously, a tall order. My summary just now does not do justice to the book, in that it provides just the main narrative, and leaves out all the studies Henrich cites to sustain empirically the many relations that combine in the one big, causally effective and historically significant relation: between what he calls ‘WEIRD’ personalities and ‘WEIRD’ societies. For a book that is basically in the “read this and you’ll understand everything” genre, Henrich proceeds with necessary but nonetheless remarkable care: he does his very best to make sure the evidence bears on the question at hand. He also shows little disciplinary prejudice in his selection of that evidence. Indeed, Henrich insists that we have to understand the biological and cultural aspects of social systems and their historical development in tandem: “culture rewires our brains and alters our biology – it renovates the firmware” (65). Humans differ, and their beliefs do influence their choices. Priming experimental subjects with references to God tends to work on religious believers but not on atheists (125). In a game set up to maximize the opportunity to benefit somebody from your own community by cheating a little bit, belief in a ‘Big God’ (one that monitors and punishes behavior) correlates with lower parochial bias (136).

Henrich is clearly prepared to show his work. This empirical and statistical stratum to his argument earned him a rave review by Daniel Dennett, contrasting Henrich’s approach to what Dennett apparently sees as the rather shoddy work of the softer disciplines: “Traditional historians and the more informal cultural anthropologists will see themselves being confronted with a methodology few of them use and challenged to defend their impressionistic hypotheses against his lab-based results”.

Expecting pushback against Henrich’s thesis from these corners, Dennett then tries to set the rules for engagement. Criticize the statistics if you can, point to relevant exceptions to his generalizations if you are aware of them, but don’t provide “ideological condemnations or quotations of brilliant passages by revered authorities”, he warns, wondering whether historians, economists and anthropologists are up to this task.

Dennett’s injunctions don’t exactly level the playing field. For one, nine out of fourteen chapters in Henrich’s book itself open with a quotation of a brilliant passage by a revered authority. There’s nothing wrong with quotations to liven up an argument, but this little statistic ought to serve as a reminder that a book-long argument usually does more than providing hypotheses, empirical tests and statistical reasoning: there are other types of support that Henrich musters.

There are, for example, idealized cases and thought-experiments. One of these illustrates the different evolutionary incentives that low-status males have in polygynous versus monogamous societies: “suppose Samu happens upon a drunk merchant in a dark alley late at night.” (264) Samu can rob the merchant and risk being caught and executed, or do nothing. As a single man in a moderately polygynous society, Samu’s expected net gain in reproductive fitness from robbing the merchant is higher than that of a married man in a monogamous society.

There are also passages that provide plain anecdotal evidence, such as a story where Henrich notices that his assistant’s watch is 25 minutes slow serves to show that WEIRD “time psychology” differs markedly from that of his Fijian friends and field assistants, who “just can’t get into this clock-time mind-set” (361).

All of this, I should add, is usually in conjunction with pertinent statistical evidence. Henrich himself is not trying to determine in advance what would count as permissible evidence against his case, nor am I suggesting that all of Henrich’s non-lab-based arguments are invalid. It is Dennett and like-minded readers whom I want to remind that critics of a book may well be in their rights to aim for other aspects than its factual basis or its statistical methodology: they may also ask whether the concepts are precise enough, whether Henrich’s claims follow from the evidence or whether the narrative of the book requires more than he can plausibly demonstrate. For all his commendable empirical work, Henrich’s results are certainly not merely “lab-based”.

We WEIRD people

‘WEIRD’, I will remind you, stands for ‘Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic’. Though this list constitutes the core idea of the book, the conceptual relations between its constituent terms are quite underanalyzed. Its constituent terms also don’t do much explanatory lifting individually: most of the work is done by measurable psychological traits like ‘analytic thinking’ and ‘ impersonal prosociality’. Whenever Henrich uses the term ‘WEIRD’ to group countries, he seems to mean just ‘Western’ – educated, industrialized, rich and democratic Japan does not make the cut (e.g. 37).

In this light, it appears that the term ‘WEIRD’ serves an apologetic purpose at least as much as a descriptive one: Henrich must know that in many ways, the story he is telling resembles classic self-congratulatory accounts of Western dominance by 19th– and 20th-century intellectuals. He needs to make clear that when he calls himself and his readers trusting, honest, fair and cooperative towards strangers (22), he is not claiming to be higher up some universally valid moral scale. His argument is that different societies come with different norms and encourage different psychological traits. Henrich does not judge; If I am offended or flattered by the fact that he calls me patient and hardworking, that is in my head.

Even without Henrich himself providing moral judgment, however, his argument has some disturbing repercussions. After all, arguing that some populations were and are relatively more ready for science, democracy and the whole package deal of WEIRD modernity is also to argue that some populations may be less ready, and Henrich does not shy away from that conclusion. Though I am fine calling a failed state a failed state, my priors are such that I need rather a lot of evidence before I conclude that the success and failure of democracies and market economies depends primarily on the average psychological propensities of their populations. And on crucial points like this, the evidence turns out on inspection to be rather patchy.

Let us look at the argument in a section that links the kinship-dissolving policies of the medieval Church to psychological shifts that favor more democratic and representative institutions. First, a quotation is provided to the effect that an Afghan voter regards kinship ties as a self-evident reason to vote for a certain candidate in a national election. This leads Henrich to reflect that such strong in-group loyalty leads to elections that are “largely determined by the size of the different voting blocs”, where “group discussions or debates over new policies aren’t very productive” (409). You need WEIRD people to sustain democracies, not just because they think less tribally and more independently but also because they “work harder on tasks they’ve chosen than on identical tasks assigned by an authority” (410). Experimental measurements of this ‘democracy premium’, Henrich says, have almost exclusively been done on WEIRD people, and recent studies have failed to replicate it in Mongolia and rural China, where “men contributed the most in an experimental Public Goods Game when a ‘law’ was externally imposed on them, not when they voted for it.” (410) This suggests that psychology and institutions are related. To demonstrate now that the causal links historically run from kinship institutions via psychology to democratic institutions, Henrich notes that second-generation migrants from countries with stronger kinship-based institutions are less politically engaged than migrants from countries with less strong kinship-based institutions; that countries with more intensive kinship now have less democratic governments; and that the longer European cities were exposed to the Church’s “Marriage and Family Program”, the more likely they were to develop representative government (412).

The argument is cumulative, so obviously it is unclear precisely which of these pillars are actually load-bearing and to what extent. They also interlink with other sections of the book, so the entire edifice is more resilient to criticisms of particulars than my summary can do justice to. That said, I still believe that the evidence that Henrich provides is all over the place, in both senses of that phrase.

In particular, all the present-day evidence, in so far as it is synchronous, proves mainly correlations and not causal directionality, as Henrich is of course well ware. The argument about second-generation migrants suggests, at best, that psychological propensities are somewhat inert over a few generations; it does not suggest that they are causally prior to social institutions. The evidence for the historical efficacy of the ‘MFP’ is particularly indirect – again, Henrich admits this (174) – and rests almost exclusively on evidence in English and Yiddish for medieval changes in kinship terminology.

It is considerations like these that lead me to suspect that Henrich is trying to achieve too much, and that the part that is ‘too much’ is precisely the problematic part, precisely the part that goes beyond the evidence to tie everything together in one historical grand narrative, the part where he suggests to an uncomfortable extent that the historical era of Western prosperity and global dominance was, although not morally ‘deserved’, at least psychologically fitting: that it was intrinsically linked to the mental makeup of Western populations that was itself an unintentional effect of the MFP. It was built, that is, on their thrift, patience, cooperation, analytic thinking, and universally pro-social attitudes. Neither the words ‘nationalism’ nor ‘imperialism’ appear at all in this 680-page book about the roots of modern Western institutions, though Henrich does include a few paragraphs about colonialism and globalization. These are mainly devoted to the claim that Western impersonal institutions are hard to implement in kinship-societies – where representative governments, universities and social safety nets “created a misfit with people’s cultural psychology” (485).

Henrich’s resourcefulness and care in finding and presenting evidence is admirable – Dennett is right about that. The problem is not with the evidence, but with the small but significant jumps beyond the evidence that are needed to sustain the narrative. Presenting with confidence the empirical finding that Swedes are more patient in delaying gratification than Rwandans is one thing; the suggestion that this indicates a psychological trait of patience that is historically and causally prior to the economic condition of a country – that “Marshmallows come to those who wait”, as the section heading has it (38) – is quite another. And using that as a building block in a larger narrative to the effect that what drove the rise of the West was the psychology of the average Westerner, that is another thing altogether.

How to do history

Criticizing this narrative itself only goes so far; a lot of the building blocks still stand, and this makes the book informative and exciting. In particular, it is hard not to be impressed by the range of phenomena that Henrich presents that correlate empirically with strong kinship-related institutions.

There is also something elegant about the way Henrich ties together cultural institutions and developments on the one hand and the material and social substrate of human existence on the other hand. In a sense, this is a throwback to more ambitious accounts of human society, to sociological accounts of history that don’t shy away from the natural, biological aspects to human society. I am thinking in particular of Max Weber, to whom Henrich gives a hat-tip several times. Substantively, Weber’s and Henrich’s accounts converge in the importance they attach to the Protestant work ethic. They agree that cultural differences have social implications, and that the divergences to which they lead can lead to a dynamic that is so strong as to have world-historical effects.

More than that: without compromising on their interest in the efficacy of culture, they share a ‘realistic’, materialistic perspective on social organization. That is to say, Weber and Henrich are both keenly aware that social forms compete, and that natural constraints determine the forms they can sustainably take. In Weber’s early work, the key is the organization of agriculture, partly via its effects upon family structures. To this, not unlike Henrich, Weber later added an interest in the European city as a culturally unique phenomenon, a space that fostered voluntary organization and commerce.

This ‘anthropological grounding’ of big history is a useful heuristic device: it opens our eyes and raises our consciousness to the fact that culture and religion do not operate in a consequence-free space, but that everything takes place against a background in which both humans and human cultures are struggling to survive and reproduce. However, after recognizing this, there are still myriads of causal arrows to be drawn, and it will be interesting to see whether Henrich’s dichotomies are up to the task. For in spite of his protestations that we should not dichotomize, the argument proceeds by setting up contrasts time and again: between WEIRD and non-WEIRD psychologies, between weak and strong kinship institutions. Even if you, like me, are receptive to the logic that ties together kinship and psychology, or if you in general feel the intellectual pressure to understand culture in broadly-speaking-naturalistic terms, we should still ask how far the vocabulary and the theses go that Henrich provides. Dennett seems to think historians should either answer him or go home. Is that true?

It depends on how seriously we take the schematism of MFP -> psychological change -> Great Divergence. We can’t have it both ways: either historical causality is complicated and multidirectional, or it is not. If the thesis is that it is not, there is a heavy burden of proof on Henrich that I believe his considerable evidence does not meet. If it is, there is too much handwaving with respect to the parts of history where the action is, too little attention to the twists and turns and the ways in which they do not latch on to the distinctions that he has drawn. It will really not do to account for the rise of science in terms of a WEIRD(-ish) “willingness to break with tradition” (406), or to explain the Enlightenment by saying that “Enlightenment thinkers drew from and recombined [previous] ideas and concepts using minds equipped with a proto-WEIRD psychology” (427-428). Not because such claims are false, but because they are outrageously imprecise as a way of contrasting early modern European and other thinkers.

Of course, I am not denying that there may be peculiar institutions that have led the early-modern European context in which these WEIRD minds operated to be different or even unique. My point is that appealing to this cultural context, as Henrich does (“Enlightenment thinkers didn’t suddenly crack the combination on Pandora’s box” (428)), is still a long way removed from insisting that the explanatory threads now have to go through speculations about where the average European intellectual at the time stood with regard to the individualism complex. The lab doesn’t reach that far. The idea that Copernicus’ psychology – in the sense of his admittedly historically determined but no less ‘hardwired’ psychological traits and attitudes – are what we have to appeal to if we are to explain his heliocentric hypothesis; that it is his “willingness to go out on a limb” (405)? These kinds of psychologizing accounts would be a large and regrettable step back compared to the fine-grained narratives that historians of science have provided over the last century.

No, this book is not, as Dennett believes, the new measure for “traditional historians” to rise up to. Nor is that rejection itself a complete measure of its worth. Henrich’s book does not change how we should do history, but it does come with a thesis that its readers will have to relate to. Henrich provides a trove of experimental and statistical results as well as an overarching narrative that, depending on where you started, may challenge some of the very views that you bring to your life not just as a student or scholar in some specific discipline, but as a member of this species and a citizen of this world. I know it did mine, which is one reason why it stuck in my mind for weeks.

It is a peculiar book. It is Weberian in many of its ambitions and claims; Eurocentric in and in spite of its very attempt to treat Europe as an outlier; Informative and highly Readable; and, on some levels, Disturbing. It is, in short, WEIRD. I suspect that will always be read as a compliment.


Edition used: Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest people in the world: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. First edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 2020.